In the tradition of Alan Parker’s phenomenally shot but absurd Angel Heart, The Skeleton Key‘s idea of stirring cultural anxiety is introducing a pretty white thing into a sinister world where “black” magic reigns supreme. Perhaps looking to circumvent Angel Heart‘s racist and flamboyant exploitation of the religious practices of Southern blacks, The Skeleton Key‘s makers are careful to explain the difference between voodoo and hoodoo to Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) of Hoboken, New Jersey when she goes to work in the outskirts of New Orleans for a crazy old bitty and her invalid husband. According to the slapdash Encyclopedia Brittanica lecture Caroline receives, hoodoo is a name for American folk magic that’s part African, part European, and part Native American—it’s voodoo without the religion. Which means it’s okay if Caroline thinks it’s a bunch of hooey, because only a crazy person—white, black, or Native American—would be fool enough to take it seriously in the first place. If so, playing the fool becomes the name of the game, which is predicated entirely on a bubble-butted Hudson trying to out-hoodoo Violet (Gena Rowlands) and save Ben (John Hurt) with the help of alternately scary and sassy locals, mostly black—but also Peter Sarsgaard and some crazy old white woman whose blind eyes could mean she’s either read too many V.C. Andrews novels or seen too many horror flicks. Director Iain Softley has an eye for local color, or lack thereof, but he trivializes black disaffection and makes social unrest an entertainment during one explanatory flashback, presenting the lynching of two blacks as the callous punchline to a bourgie party. Given every reason in the world to steer clear of Terrebonne Parish, Caroline’s narratively convenient daddy fixation keeps her in place as the film spirals and creeks programmatically to its inevitable conclusion. Save for its silly doozy of an ending, it’s all very boring and ridiculous, and if it weren’t for the great Rowlands campily acting, scraping, and crawling circles around Hudson, the film would be a total wash.
- Iain Softley
- Ehren Kruger
- Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant, John Hurt, Maxine Barnett, Fahnlohnee Harris, Ronald McCall, Jeryl Prescott Sales
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